[This review originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate. That issue is no longer available online. I have made a few minor corrections to the text of the review.]
At 29 years old, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has been crowned “a major new voice” by enough critics, directors, dramaturgs, and producers that there is already something of a backlash in the works. The New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli recently dismissed McCraney’s success as that of “a lucky guy,” calling his work “precious,” “naïve,” and “affect[ed],” while Erik Haagensen, in Backstage, acknowledged that there is “much to admire” in McCraney’s work but continued to assert that the wunderkind’s dramaturgy is too often “ham-fisted,” “trite,” and “emotionally distancing.”
As much as it would be fun to play iconoclast, however, I’m afraid that in this case I have to side with the kingmakers: Tarell Alvin McCraney is the real deal.
His plays are neither flawless nor universal (though I suspect this latter adjective will be employed far too often in discussions of his work); they are too ambitious to be perfect, or to please everyone in every audience. These are challenging texts, in need of strong directors and skilled actors, and I have little doubt that some disappointing productions of McCraney’s plays will make their way around the regional and university theatre circuits in the coming years. Despite what some may say, however, needing a director does not lessen the value of a work. A play usually does, and usually should, require a director; the text alone is not theatre. And, for all their carefully crafted use of language, these plays are not intended to be read; the poetry they strive for is a poetry in four dimensions, embodied and in motion.
The Brother/Sister Plays, now playing in repertory at the Public Theater, is a series of three plays all set in the fictional town of San Pere Louisiana. Each play is meant to stand on its own, but the three together amplify one another, revisiting characters and families and viewing them from different angles, at different times, in different combinations. The first play in the trilogy, In the Red and Brown Water, is presented as Part I, while plays two and three, The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet are presented together as Part II. Each evening lasts about two hours on its own, or you can see all three plays (i.e., both “parts”) together in a “marathon” performance.
The aesthetic and narrative strategy of the plays is to marry the stories of a rural, lower and working class, African American community with the storytelling traditions that the playwright clearly believes to be the at the root of the theatrical impulse. More specifically in this case, McCraney has woven into his plays a number of references to Yoruba mythology; many of the characters in the play are named for Yoruba deities (Oya, Ogun, Oshoosi, Elegba, Egungen, etc.), their character traits and actions resonating with the myths referenced by their names.
In the Red and Brown Water introduces us to the people of San Pere and to the “Distant Present” in which McCraney has set the plays. Oya (Kianné Mischett), a promising high school track star, is torn between accepting a college scholarship or staying home to be with her ailing mother. She is courted by the cocky, sometimes cruel Shango (Sterling K. Brown) and by the sweet and stuttering Ogun (Marc Damon Johnson), and eventually finds herself pregnant, orphaned, and struggling to hold her world together. Along the way, we meet the mischievous, dangerously charming Elegba (André Holland), a trickster whose dreams may hold deeper meanings, as well as Ogun’s Aunt Elegua (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) and a number of tertiary characters who help flesh out the shape and feel of the community.
Water is directed by Tina Landau, who co-wrote The Viewpoints Book with SITI Company founder Anne Bogart. Viewpoints is a method of teaching movement and improvisation for actors and dancers, and has famously reinvigorated physical approaches to theatre in the West. Some of the techniques employed in Viewpoints training have become so commonplace as to result in clichéd sequences of gestures and poses that any educated actor recognizes as the products of a classroom exercise. At its best, though, Viewpoints provides actors with a common vocabulary that allows them to carve space with their bodies and shape the rhythm of a performance with their breath.
Water is among the best uses of Viewpoints-derived staging I’ve seen; it’s also the most successful work I’ve seen from Landau, whose productions have sometimes disappointed. The actors, most of whom are visible throughout the performance, become a (usually nonverbal) chorus when their respective characters are not the focus of the action. They breathe and pose and dance together, punctuating and underscoring the poetry and prose of the text and providing a supportive, communal backdrop for the work of their castmates. All of this ties in nicely to McCraney’s vision of theatre as a part of a longer oral tradition, a sharing of stories true and false, of histories and myths, memoirs and allegories, of mourning and of celebration.
Assured by the Public’s Web site that the plays need not be seen in order, I saw Part II before part I. While this meant I failed to catch a reference to previous events from time to time, it is probably they order I would recommend seeing the parts in, if only because Tina Landau’s gorgeous staging of In the Red and Brown Water is a hard act to follow. This is not to say, though, that The Brothers Size and Marcus are not successful stagings.
Director Robert O’Hara, an accomplished playwright in his own right (and one who was also once saddled with labels like “prodigy”) elicits athletic, disciplined performances from the actors, foregrounding the rhythmic muscularity of McCraney’s text. This is especially true of The Brothers Size, the most compact, and perhaps the best written, of the three plays. Brothers focuses on Ogun, older now, who has taken in his recently paroled younger brother Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry) and is trying to keep him out of trouble. Trouble is inevitable, though, with trickster/messenger Elegba also out of prison.
Marcus jumps ahead a generation to introduce us to its title character (Holland), who bears a striking resemblance to his father Elegba. In addition to the physical similarities, Marcus shares his father’s prescient dreams as well as some of his sexual appetites.
The acting, for the most part, admirably balances precision and passion. The performers are faced with no small task, as McCraney’s text demands that they step into, out of, and around their characters from moment to moment, and the two directors have envisioned the three plays with a number of different acting styles. McCraney often has his characters speak their own stage directions as if they were asides, not so much to distance us from the action as to reinforce the idea that the actor is always also a storyteller, and that narrative is at the heart of what theatre is. These actor-storytellers are more than up to the task, and it seems almost unfair to the top-notch ensemble to single out Henry’s furious, infectious energy, Holland’s dangerously vulnerable charm, or Gregory’s masterful timing and tone.
The deceptively minimal design work is first-rate as well, particularly Lindsay Jones’s sound and Peter Kaczorowski’s lights. Both of these elements pull focus when they are required to do so, but more often subtly support the work of the actors, gently and generously amplifying the directors’ visions of performer-driven productions.
As I’ve already hinted, these shows are not without their flaws. Water’s second act does not quite live up to the promise of its first, while Marcus fails to shed enough new light on the stock coming-of-age tropes upon which it relies too heavily. Despite these and other shortcomings, though, it seems clear that The Brother/Sister Plays will be remembered as a highlight of the 2009–2010 theatre season. McCraney’s efforts to marry the quotidian with the mythic and the gritty with the cosmic will be criticized by some as pretentious, but I never felt he was trying to inflate the importance of these very personal stories so much as he was reminding us that mythology is personal too, that the telling of stories, whatever their scope or provenance, is always less about connecting us to our invented gods than it is about connecting us to one another.
The Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Part I: In the Red and Brown Water, directed by Tina Landau. Part II: The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, directed by Robert O’Hara. Sets by James Schuette; costumes by Karen Perry; lights by Peter Jaczorowski; sound by Lindsay Jones; vocal arrangements by Zane Mark. With Sterling K. Brown, Kimberly Hébert Gregory, Brian Tyree Henry, André Holland, Marc Damn Johnson, Royce Johnson, Vanessa A. Jones, Kevin Kelly, Sean Allan Krill, Angela Lewis, Nikkiya Mathis, Kianné Muschett, Hubert Point-Dejour, and Heather Alicia Simms. Running in repertory through December 13th at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Avenue. Tickets $60 ($25 student tickets available in person at the box office). www.publictheater.org